Should politics get The X Factor?

The public should get to help select political candidates, says Justin Webb - and Amelia Lily should still be in The X Factor

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I am a fan of Amelia Lily. Amelia is the 16-year-old who was booted off The X Factor a few weeks ago. She’ll be fine. She has 71,000 Twitter followers and club bookings and sensible-sounding parents from Middlesbrough.

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But she has more: she has Type 1 diabetes. This incurable condition (my young son has it) requires discipline and bravery to overcome. Mess it up and you die. Control it and you can get on The X Factor and beyond.

I wanted Amelia to win. For selfish reasons, I hoped she’d bring much-needed publicity to a nasty condition that affects hundreds of thousands of British children and adults. Unusually for The X Factor, my view and the views of the wider public were not taken into account: Amelia was ditched by her mentor Kelly Rowland to spice up the early stages of the show. The public could complain, and vote in later stages, but only for the acts allowed through by the mentors.

Which brings me to politics. Early in the new year Republicans in America will have to choose the man or woman they want to oppose Barack Obama in 2012. They could do so on the basis of their narrow concerns. They could lose their Amelia Lily candidates early for reasons they never have to explain. But here is the genius in the American system; and it’s a genius that we could copy here if we wanted to.

They will have to open up to the wider public as well, right from the start. Many American States allow non-party members to vote in party primaries. So in New Hampshire early next year the local Republicans (let us call them the mentors) will have their say, diluted by the say of hundreds of thousands of independents who will – quite legally – join in the election. The result is that the choices of candidates made by American political parties reflect the views not only of party members but also of a wider public.

I remember watching the queues at the Texas Democratic primary in 2008. Entire families had brought picnic suppers as they waited patiently for their moment to decide for Hillary or Barack. Folks who would never have actually joined the party got to help make a crucial decision.

We did it, too. When Sarah Wollaston was selected to fight a Devon constituency for the Conservatives before the last election it was on the basis of ballot papers sent to everyone in the constituency. She won the ballot and she went on to win the seat at the 2010 election.

So where are the plans for our major parties to repeat the experiment? A certain silence has descended on talk of “open primaries” here. Cost is part of the problem. It takes money to open up the system and the money is simply not there: why would a party spend its cash on reducing its members’ impact.

I wonder, too, whether our politicians are quite as keen on change as they sometimes suggest. To get Hampshire to follow where New Hampshire leads would require a loosening of ties between party faithful and party representatives. Some of the party faithful might resent that.

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But do give a thought to primaries as the news becomes full of the American versions in the New Year. Just like The X Factor, American politics can look foolish and balloon-infested. But it might have lessons for us, if we would care to learn them. Amelia Lily for President?